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Ancient Egyptian Book of the Earth : Tomb of Ramesses VI Roberson, Joshua


The sarcophagus chamber of Ramesses VI (Dynasty 20, c. 1145–139 BCE) in the Valley of the Kings, west of modern Luxor, was decorated from floor to ceiling, on all finished wall surfaces and three column faces, with scenes and texts from an ancient Egyptian cosmological work known today as the “Book of the Earth” (ancient title unknown). This “book” was in fact one ad hoc collection drawn from a stock pool of imagery relating to the subterranean regions of the Duat, where gods and the dead were believed to reside. In total, eight royal monuments from the later New Kingdom (Dynasties 19–20) included elements from the Book of the Earth, of which the version of Ramesses VI is by far the largest and most elaborate. After the New Kingdom, elements from the Book of the Earth began to appear on non-royal papyri and other mortuary equipment. Scenes belonging to the Book of the Earth depict a wide variety of chthonic entities, whom the sun god — and by extension, the deceased king — was believed to encounter during the nocturnal portion of his cyclical journey through the cosmos. The Book of the Earth divided its scenes of the divine realm into two large halves, designated by convention as “A” on the left (when facing the rear of the tomb) and “B” on the right. The Book of the Earth was paired typically with images of the sky on the ceiling directly overhead, which might depict either anthropomorphized constellations or the cosmos-spanning sky goddess. Such celestial images were inherently directional: In the tomb of Ramesses VI, the sky goddess appears with her day- and night-time forms back to back, with her head in the west and her feet in the east. Extending the directionality of the ceiling to the Book of the Earth scenes on the walls below it permits us to identify the “A” group, on the left, as the western half of the underworld, where the sun initially sets at dusk, while the “B” group, on the right, corresponds to the eastern half of the underworld, from which the sun ultimately rises at dawn. Other important themes include the union of the sun god with his counterpart Osiris, the punishment of the Damned, and the transit of the solar barque through the underworld, personified as a double lion or sphinx.

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